The Commodification of Murder: Should We Really Be Giving Killers Book Deals?

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Trigger warning: This article contains discussions of murder and a relatively graphic description of the death of Angel Melendez. Approach with caution.

Writer and director John Waters, a camp icon and figurehead of the LGBTQ community, dedicated a chapter in his book Role Models to a woman he considered a great friend and source of inspiration. Said woman was also convicted for her active part in the Tate LaBianca murders. Leslie Van Houten stabbed Rosemary LaBianca 16 times and remains in jail to this day for her crimes despite Waters’s best efforts. While I do not doubt Waters’ genuine feelings of friendship for Van Houten, watching him publicly advocate for her release in a way that still fetishizes what she did is discomforting to say the least. Keep in mind that Waters also dedicated his most infamous film Pink Flamingos to “Sadie, Katie and Les”, members of the Manson family, and he even confessed that he “wanted to do the same thing as the Manson family… We wanted to scare the world.”

The transgressive nature of Waters’ work and his desire to latch on to similar figures in real life regardless of their crimes came to mind recently as I saw the news that Michael Alig is writing a memoir, which is being shopped around numerous publishers. For those of you unfamiliar with Alig, he is best known as one of the original club kids on the New York scene in the 90s. In 1997, he was charged with and plead guilty to first degree manslaughter after he killed Angel Melendez, then dismembered and dumped his body in the Hudson River. He was released from prison on parole on May 5th and has been tweeting regularly about life on the outside.

Alig’s story became the stuff of pop culture dreams after the release of a documentary Party Monster: The Shockumentary (which I recommend with caution), and a film (which is terrible) based on the memoir of fellow club kid James St James, which starred Seth Green and Macaulay Culkin. St James is now a mainstream star, having written a young adult novel and hosting a series of YouTube make-up tutorials through World of Wonder, who made both the original documentary and feature film. The message is clear – the party monster sells. There’s clearly a demand and so supply is needed. Why wouldn’t Alig want in on that?

The memoir, uncomfortably entitled Aligula, has been the subject of much speculation, but early reports suggest that publishers are weary of embracing it due to a seeming lack of remorse on the part of Alig. Keep in mind that even OJ Simpson found a publisher for his book If I Did It, so I don’t doubt that Alig’s work will find a publishing home. World of Wonder, the brand that profited greatly from the club kid legacy, may choose to go into publishing one day. They seem pretty comfortable with producing prison phone calls between Alig & St James as podcasts on their website.

We like to be shocked, even when we express disgust with it. Shock has been a profitable field for an exceedingly long time. We’re also a culture that will go out of its way to justify the most heinous things in the name of “art”. We’ll give Roman Polanski an Oscar he can’t even accept because returning to America to do so would mean being arrested for raping a 13 year old girl. We’ll throw a child under the bus because her accusation that her father molested her makes us worried about watching Annie Hall. We’ll also claim that Michael Alig has served his time and can move on with his life in any way he so pleases.

The question remains over how Alig will portray himself in the memoir. He’s talked of himself as being a sad drug addled messed up man who didn’t know what he was doing, but he also carries with him the title of infamy and legend thanks to the works written about him by others, be they journalists or friends on the scene. Will he martyr himself or show some restraint and empathy? Will publishers really care? Will his readers care? His 30,800 plus Twitter followers suggests a built-in audience, and with the New York Post and Huffington Post Live offering up relatively unchallenged platforms for publicity, getting the word out wouldn’t be a problem. It may be a different kind of fame to the one he revelled in before his conviction but for many, the old moniker of all publicity being good publicity still stands.

Even if Alig is 100% regretful for what he did, uncomfortable questions still need to be asked over whether our society really should be revelling in this all. The thoughts of Melendez’s family barely come up in all of this discussion. Publishing deals are given to those who experience the most fleeting and questionable moments of fame because it’s seen as a safe deal. Combine that with a tabloid favourite story that left people enraptured for extended periods of time and a ready-made cult classic and it’s not hard to see someone snapping it up. There are consequences to wanting to scare the world.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I do read books dealing with true crime occasionally but mostly about those long past like Jack the Ripper. That is obviously a different case, as at least there the real killer won’t profit from the sales. Still in many books the way the killer is portrayed/treated vs. the way the victims are makes me really uncomfortable (the sad low-point being an author who thanked Jack the Ripper in his acknowledgements for “creating such a long-lasting mystery”)

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